PEORIA, Ariz. — When Liberty High School in Peoria hosts its neighborhood rival for the football season opener, everyone in attendance will be rooting for one cause: the legacy of Zach Hunzinger.
At Friday's season opener between Liberty and rival Sunrise Mountain High School, Hunzginer was honored for the inspiration and impact he made on others.
Hunzinger, who graduated from Liberty in 2019, battled osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, for nearly five years before passing away in July. Hunzinger’s social media posts and composure in the media spotlight made him a role model for others.
“Even though the end result wasn’t what we all hoped it would be, the message he left behind, the legacy he left behind, will impact student bodies for years,” said Eric Gardner, Athletic Director for Liberty High School.
An ambassador for the Phoenix police
The son of a Phoenix police officer, Hunzinger dreamed of wearing the uniform after graduating from high school. His outspokenness and pride in law enforcement became a beacon during a time when police departments struggle to recruit new members.
“I’ve always dreamed of wearing the Phoenix police uniform,” Zach wrote in one social media post.
In November of last year, the Phoenix Police Department presented Zach with a certificate of honorary appointment as an officer. Zach’s father Chuck pinned the badge on his son.
“He looked up to anybody that tried to be a hero for somebody else,” said Chuck Hunzinger.
Over the years, local firefighters and police officers visited Zach during his battle with cancer, writing him letters and notes and thanking him for being an ambassador for public service.
“We still get messages for him from people we don’t even know,” said Chuck Hunzinger. “He ended up drawing strength from everybody else.”
Zach chronicled his journey on social media, including Instagram.
YouTube tributes feature family and strangers visiting Zach to show their support during his struggles.
A book unfinished
In June, Zach appeared on “The Raw U” podcast with 3-time Olympian Chris Bumstead. During the interview, Zach said he wanted to finish his book, titled “You Vs. You,” so that people battling cancer, mental illness or other challenges in life can find inspiration.
“In life, you must be your own captain. You must hold yourself accountable and push yourself to get over whatever life throws at you,” Zach said.
Before his death, Zach left a few chapters of the book on a laptop. He describes dark, painful times while undergoing surgeries. He shows vulnerability by describing how he wanted to be popular when he entered high school as a freshman. He describes appreciating “the little things” after his diagnosis. He also writes about the joy he felt when his school showed an outpouring of support for him when he returned to campus during his senior year.
“The feeling of loneliness and emptiness had completely gone away,” Zach wrote.
Zach’s family says they plan to finish the book, perhaps by enlisting people in Zach’s life to contribute chapters.
“You don’t need to know you’re dying to start living”
Zach’s younger sister Emma says she misses her nightly ritual of watching “Law and Order” with Zach.
“That was supposed to be us,” Emma said. “We were going to be Phoenix police officers together.”
During his bout with cancer, Zach underwent surgeries to remove tumors from his leg and chest. The cancer spread to the point that in June, doctors told Zach he had only weeks or months left to live.
“Throughout all of it, he also just wanted to teach other people that you don’t need to know you’re dying to start living. Live the life you want now,” said Michaela Hunzinger, Zach’s older sister.
Brothers in Service
Zach showed empathy at a young age by looking out for his twin brother Chase, who had difficulty speaking, said Chuck.
“Zach would always have to step in and talk for him because they had a twin language,” Chuck said. “And you could just see the pain in Zach’s face that his brother felt like nobody could understand him. Zach always stepped him to be a helper.”
Chase Hunzinger is carrying on the family’s legacy of public service by training to be a Peoria firefighter.
'You still must grind'
Zach’s philosophy about life emerges in a flurry of social media posts during his darkest times.
“There’s a storm inside of me. A burning, a river, a drive. An unrelenting desire to push myself harder and farther than I could think possible,” Zach wrote in one social media post. “Pushing myself into those cold, dark corners where the bad things live. Where the bad things fight. I want that fight at the highest volume.”
It was fitting that Zach wore number 50 on his football jersey, Chuck said. The “5-0” represented the police. Zach and Chuck also used the number 50 to represent the 50% “your choice of attitude.”
“And the second 50% is how you apply that attitude in everything that you do. And together when you add that up represents 100% of reality. And that’s on you,” Chuck said.
A stack of books on Zach’s nightstand represents military members and athletes who inspired Zach during his final years. Zach used their words and his own thoughts that he wrote on post-it notes and his computer to develop his own philosophy.
“I found out a couple of days ago that my cancer came back,” Zach wrote in one passage. “The beauty about that is I got two choices. To feel sorry for myself or find a way to get better…. You play a game called you vs. you. The best part about it is you don’t get to restart or get another life. It reveals the truth about you.”
How to support Zach’s family
Friday’s game against Sunrise Mountain High School starts at 7:05. A 6:40 ceremony dedicated to Zach will include dozens of police officers and vehicles, a helicopter flyover, and a video presentation about Zach’s legacy. The Phoenix Police Department will also present a commemorative coin in Zach’s honor.
“Zach’s message is a life lesson for kids these days about challenges they face and about how to tackle those challenges,” Gardner said.
T-shirts sold at the game will help support Zach’s family. They have $20,000 in medical bills and spent $15,000 on a funeral, said Zach’s mother, Megan.
A GoFundMe account has been set up in Zach’s honor.
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